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Tips for Healthy Eating When Your Stress Levels Are Spiking

You’ve probably felt this way: You try to make nutritious food choices most of the time. But then your job gets overwhelming, or you have an argument with your partner, or soccer season starts and you feel like you have a second job driving your kid to practices and cheering them on at games.

You feel stressed and that stress affects what you eat. You turn to sugary or processed carb-filled comfort foods, lose your appetite and skip meals or grab fast food or processed food when you’re super-busy.

Before you beat yourself up, remember that having that donut, mac-and-cheese or microwave burrito is perfectly fine. But if you feel your food choices when you’re stressed are affecting your physical or mental health and you want to make changes, read on. Nicole Hahn, a registered dietitian with Banner — University Medicine, has some tips for you.

How stress impacts your food choices

Stress can disrupt your usual routines and decisions. When you’re stressed, you might find yourself:

  • Making less-healthy choices: “Stress may impact your desire for certain foods — likely those containing more sugar, salt or fat,” Hahn said. These foods may taste good, but afterward you might feel sluggish and more stressed.
  • Eating emotionally: It’s common to turn to food for comfort when you’re stressed, especially at night. “A lot of times, people will eat to avoid what is causing stress. Unchecked stress eating can lead to excess energy intake over time and, likely, to undesired weight gain,” Hahn said. You may feel better when you eat emotionally, but you may overeat and feel guilty or ashamed later.
  • Skipping meals: Stress can take away your appetite or make you forget to eat. When you don’t eat regular meals, you may feel tired and even more stressed.

Make it easier to make the healthy choice when you’re stressed

A lot of times, being stressed and being busy go hand in hand. Here are some steps you can take to simplify healthy eating:

  • Plan your meals ahead of time: Sit down for a few minutes and create a meal plan. If planning for a week feels overwhelming, try to plan for the next two to four days. 
  • Have portable snacks on hand: Stock up on foods like nuts, seeds, fruit, cheese and whole grain crackers that you can eat when you don’t have time to cook or you’re on the go. Keep some of these snacks in your bag, desk or car. They can help keep you from snacking from a candy machine or picking up fast food.
  • Simplify your shopping: You don’t want to wander around the grocery store for an hour. Now that you have a meal plan and know what snacks you want to buy, make a shopping list. If you can, do your shopping at a time when the store is less busy. You may also want to order your groceries for pick up or have them delivered.
  • Prep as much as possible: When you have a little bit of time, streamline your food preparation. Chop veggies for a few meals, cook extra grains or roast a whole chicken so you have leftovers. “When your meals and snacks are ready, they are easier to choose,” Hahn said.  
  • Schedule your meals and snacks: If you forget to eat when you’re stressed, set reminders so you have something to eat every three to four hours. Eating regularly can help you keep your energy level stable. “Regular meals and snacks can help anyone feel their best,” Hahn said.
  • Listen to your body: While it’s important to plan ahead, you also need to listen to your body’s cues. Be flexible. Adjust your plan based on how you’re feeling. If you’re hungry between meals, choose a nutritious snack to hold you over until your next meal.  

Choose foods that boost your energy and help with your stress

It can be hard to choose nutritious foods when your stress levels are sky-high. But food doesn’t just fuel your body. It can impact your mood, energy and ability to cope with stress.

Nutrient-dense foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and macronutrients that support your physical and mental health. They maintain energy levels, help keep moods stable and support brain function.

Good choices are:

  • Lean proteins such as poultry, fish, tofu and legumes
  • Healthy fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits 
  • Whole grains

Here are some nutritious meals you can put together quickly when you’re feeling stressed:  

  • Super smoothie: Blend fruits and veggies like berries, bananas and spinach with Greek yogurt or almond milk. Top with granola, nuts, seeds and a drizzle of honey for added crunch and sweetness. 
  • Grain bowl: Cook a batch of quinoa, brown rice or whole wheat couscous and portion it into individual containers for easy meal prep. Top with roasted vegetables (such as sweet potatoes, broccoli and bell peppers), grilled chicken or tofu and a sprinkle of feta cheese or avocado for a satisfying, balanced meal. 
  • Vegetable stir-fry: Sauté a mix of colorful vegetables, such as bell peppers, snap peas, carrots and mushrooms, in a bit of olive oil and minced garlic. Add cooked shrimp, tofu or tempeh for protein and a splash of soy sauce or teriyaki sauce for flavor. Serve over brown rice or cauliflower rice. 
  • Salad wrap: Fill a whole grain wrap or lettuce leaves with various chopped vegetables, such as cucumber, tomato, shredded carrots and mixed greens. Add sliced grilled chicken, turkey or hummus for protein, avocado slices and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette for a satisfying and portable meal option. 

Practice mindful eating

When you’re stressed, it’s easy to rush through your meals without thinking too much about what or how you’re eating. But mindful eating can help you manage stress and improve your relationship with food. When you eat mindfully, you bring awareness and intention to your meal. That way, you can fully enjoy it while you tune into your body’s hunger and fullness cues.

“You have to know what you’re stressed about and why you may be gravitating towards certain foods. Ask yourself, ‘Am I really hungry?’ If hunger isn’t the true motive behind grabbing a cookie, take a step back. Try drinking some water, taking a quick walk around the block or office or diverting your mind with a puzzle, word search or coloring activity,” Hahn said.

When you are hungry, here are some ways to eat more mindfully:

  • Slow down: Eat deliberately, chew your food thoroughly, savor each bite and pay attention to the taste and texture.
  • Get rid of distractions: Turn off the TV, put away your phone and focus on eating. That way, you’re better able to spot your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
  • Use all your senses: Notice the colors, smells and sounds of your food, as well as the flavors and mouthfeel.
  • Know your hunger levels: Before you start your meal, ask yourself how hungry you are on a scale of one to 10. Aim to eat until you feel satisfied, not overly full. Pause during your meal to consider how full you are and whether you need to eat more.
  • Practice gratitude: Take a minute before you eat to be thankful for your food and its nourishment. Gratitude can help you feel more connected to your eating experience.

Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is important for your health, especially when you’re stressed. Water helps your body maintain its temperature, digest its food and flush out toxins. Dehydration can drain your energy, lower your concentration and make you tense or irritable.

The easiest way to stay hydrated is to drink water throughout the day. Take small sips regularly, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Flavor your water with fresh fruit or herbs if you want a change. Limit soda, sports drinks and sweetened coffee or tea, since they can lead to energy crashes later.

Find ways to manage your stress

Along with paying attention to what and how you’re eating, it can help to get your stress levels under control. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Get some physical activity: Whether you go for a walk, practice yoga or hit the gym, exercise can help release tension, so you feel better.
  • Practice meditation or mindfulness: Guided imagery, meditation or mindfulness can help calm your mind and make you feel more relaxed.
  • Give deep breathing a try: It can activate your body’s relaxation response and counteract stress. Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, focusing on the way your breath feels as it fills your lungs.
  • Try to make time for hobbies: Doing things that bring you joy and fulfillment can reduce stress. Paint, garden, play music or spend time outdoors. Activities you enjoy can give your life a sense of balance.

Connect with support

You don’t have to endure stressful times alone. Turn to your family and friends for emotional support or help with tasks. Share your concerns and let them know how they can help.

You can also reach out beyond your circle. You might be able to find support through local community organizations, online support groups or professional associations.

Look to health care providers, as well. Registered dietitians can help you develop nutritious eating plans for stressful times and mental health professionals can teach you ways to manage your stress. Remember, seeking support is a sign of strength not weakness.

The bottom line

Stress can change your eating habits, and it usually pushes you toward less nutritious choices. But you can be prepared, so healthy eating options are easy when stress strikes. 

To find out more about the connection between stress and nutrition and to learn better healthy eating strategies, reach out to Banner Health and talk to an expert. 

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